Yesterday afternoon, after three long days of toiling away under the I-93 overpass between South Boston and the South End, the Shepley Bulfinch team presented their final design concept, “Chime In,” before an audience of hack-a-thon participants, volunteers, and interested spectators… and the judges selected Chime In for the Most Innovative Design award! Congrats, team!
Over the course of the weekend, Christina Long, Scott Slarksy, Jay Verspyck, Stephen Russell, Laura Tittle, Katharine LiVolsi, Margaret Gammill, Kerry Frank, Sarah Tocci, and Tania Shamoun, brainstormed, sketched, rendered, talked to Bostonians, built prototypes, drank countless cups of coldbrew coffee, and endured extreme heat, some rain and a whole lot of noise, all in the name of finding an innovative solution to transform the I-93 underpass. (Also, shout out to Zitong Feng, Shepley’s Summer Design Fellow, who spent the weekend working at the hack-a-thon as a volunteer!)
This morning, I sat down with team member Stephen Russell to find out more about the hack-a-thon experience:
Sara Glassman: The judges chose the Shepley Bulfinch Chime In concept for Most Innovative. Can you give a quick summary of the idea you presented?
Stephen Russell: At the very beginning of our concept ideation, we collaboratively came up with a design mission statement, which was, “We envision a Threshold between our communities that uplifts us with a luminous and calming sensory experience.” The site itself has a very strong energy, and we quickly realized that, in order to facilitate a calming experience, we first had to address the sense of safety for pedestrians moving through the site. We proposed new and brightly-colored crosswalks that give ownership of the street back to the pedestrian. We then wanted to lead the user on a multi-sensory experience through a canopy of light and sound. We imagined a series of light-filled aluminum cylinders undulating in height suspended from the existing infrastructure. As traffic moves through the site, this cloud of wind chimes responds. The light from each chime dances at your feet, transforming the concrete sidewalk into a shimmering path.
SG: Was this the original idea the team started working on, or did it evolve from something else entirely?
SR: I think, as a team, we were always interested in playing with the elements of light and sound. The concepts of “threshold” and “portal” were also part of the vocabulary that we continuously used throughout the design process. We all agreed that the underpass never wanted to be a destination, but rather, a place where we could facilitate a multi-sensory experience of passage.
SG: You spent three days working under the I-93 overpass. I’m sure you were expecting it to be loud, dark, a bit dirty… Was there anything that surprised you about the space after spending time there? Anything you weren’t expecting?
SR: While it was most definitely loud and a bit dirty, I don’t think we ever felt that it was intensely dark. The height of the overpass allows for a diffuse light, and the cracks between the highway lanes create some really beautiful strips of direct sunlight at different times of the day. That said, it was still a really aggressive space to be in. The incessant din was enough to make you anxious at times. Our team often retreated to the adjacent coffee shop for a little relief (and wifi).
SR: Our community advisor was Sameer Bhoite, Creative Director at Warner Larson Landscape Architects and South Boston resident. I think Sameer had some really great insight on the adjacencies of the site to South Boston and the South End. He also provided an outside-designer’s eye on how our intervention should react to the human scale.
SG: How often did you interact with the judges prior to the final presentation? Was there anything in particular that they said or asked the team that influenced the final design?
SR: We were able to receive really great feedback from the judges after our 3-minute Friday Pitch and our 5- minute Saturday Presentation. Primarily, the judges were very encouraging in how they responded to our evolving concept. I think the panel was mixed in believing that adding sound to the underpass was going to be effective. However, after our final presentation when we prototyped the sound, the judges were totally sold on the concept.
SG: What would you say was the biggest challenge, overall?
SR: I think one of the most challenging aspects of the design process was creating something that would transform the large space, have a huge impact, and could be phased with a starting budget of $10,000. I think as a team we decided we did not want to scale down the design by being over-conscious of a miniscule budget. Instead, we came up with some really creative approaches toward scaling the design, phasing the design, and involving the community for funding.
SG: What was your favorite part of the whole experience?
SR: My favorite part would have to be collaborating with our awesome team! We had a lot of design voices but came up with concept relatively quickly, and we all ran with it. From that point on, we were able split up in into groups detailing the design, interviewing urban users, and building mock-ups. Even before this weekend, however, it was awesome getting feedback and ideas from the entire office. The precedents and concepts people shared definitely helped to shape our vision.
SG: This project was all about using design to transform a space in Boston for the better. You live in the city so this must have been especially meaningful to you. If you could select the next Boston location for a design hack-a-thon challenge, what would you choose?
SR: Right, I felt very connected to this site as I live along Albany Street and bike through it every day on my commute. For the next hack-a-thon, I would love to see something along the water, perhaps one of the wharfs in the Seaport or across the water in East Boston. There are a lot of un-designed spaces that have the potential for huge impact and visibility.
SG: Aside from Shepley’s Chime In idea, which design interested you the most?
SR: Fidelity Labs came up with a great concept that focused on “Urban Hikes.” They proposed that the underpass would act as a central trailhead to then direct hikers on paths throughout the adjacent neighborhoods and the city. We were all very impressed by the user research that Fidelity Labs focused on and were intrigued by what the design might entail. That would be a fun collaboration- our design as part of the urban hike would be pretty rad.
SG: I agree, I loved that concept. All ten teams came up with fantastic ideas. It was so great to be able to listen to each of the final presentations. I’m looking forward to seeing the space transformed!
Sara Glassman is a Marketing Coordinator at Shepley Bulfinch. She has her MBA from Boston University Questrom School of Business, and was a very enthusiastic spectator of the hack-a-thon presentations.